“PULLED Indefinitely.” “Off the Schedule.” “Permanent Hiatus.”
These could easily be titles for a new slate of fall sitcoms and dramas. Instead they are the most common euphemisms employed by networks when they talk about the dying elephant in the screening room -- the uncomfortable truth that somebody’s favorite television show is being canceled.
It’s a sad fact of life and prime-time television, where a show can last a few episodes (like last season’s crime drama “Smith”) or 11 seasons (like the comedy “Cheers”), that everything must eventually end. But when darkness comes in Hollywood, don’t expect a plainly worded news bulletin about it.
For a number of reasons, mostly involving the entertainment industry’s legendary egos and pride, few networks actually use the C-word -- an imprecision that gets interesting in the cases of ABC’s “presumed to be canceled” “According to Jim” and CBS’ “un-canceled” “Jericho.” And in most cases, the broadcast companies say little or nothing at all when one of their own passes on to television heaven -- or hell -- leaving viewers to figure out why, for example, “The Wedding Bells” have stopped chiming.
“I remember one network executive saying that shows are never canceled; they simply aren’t renewed,” said Tim Brooks, a noted TV historian and an executive vice president of research at Lifetime Networks. “Did you ever see a press release from a network saying, ‘Hey, we just canceled our show!’?”
The next couple of months mark the high season for shows that will soon be disappearing into the black hole of cancellation. Some fall and midseason shows that were originally put “on hiatus” -- a potentially fatal categorization that is distinct from its more lethal cousin “permanent” -- are now no more.
Like NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” After emerging from the mysterious “hiatus” netherworld, the once greatly hyped drama was “burned off” in recent weeks, just as many other lame-duck shows will be this summer -- traditionally the time of lowest viewership.
Its final original episode ran Thursday, the last of a four-part arc in which a hostage crisis in Afghanistan affects the show-within-the-show “Studio 60.”
Meanwhile, the summer witnesses the rollout of riskier projects, these days increasingly reality-based shows. These newcomers, which could not claw their way into the fall or midseason schedule, typically flare out before Labor Day. Such programming experiments can occasionally produce a mega-hit, as Fox did in June 2002 when it quietly trotted out a show called “American Idol.”
Television is hardly the only subculture fond of euphemisms. In the business world -- contrary to what the Donald exclaims on the in-limbo “The Apprentice,” you’re not fired; you’re “involuntarily separated” from the company. In the medical world, you’re not having surgery; you’re having a procedure.
But when it comes time for network executives to sign a show’s death warrant, harsh language is deliberately avoided. Last October, NBC simply took the sitcom “Twenty Good Years” “off the schedule,” and it has no return date.
In November, CBS put its ill-fated medical drama “3 Lbs” “on hiatus,” and it hasn’t budged from there since. And in March, ABC tossed “Knights of Prosperity” into the “pulled indefinitely” pile, where it stays.
Even apart from public proclamations, network executives behind the scenes usually shy away from speaking too bluntly about a show’s fate. Sometimes the creative team gets a call with the bad news. Sometimes it doesn’t. “They’ll never say it’s been canceled,” said a veteran Hollywood comedy writer and executive producer who, like many industry professionals interviewed for this story, asked not to be identified.
Seth McFarlane, the creator and executive producer of “The Family Guy,” which itself returned to the Fox schedule from the graveyard after three years of cancellation, speculates that Hollywood’s increasing corporatization makes it even more difficult for executives to exercise decisive action and thus to use decisive language. Management seems to live in fear of making a mistake, and its ever-burgeoning layers tend to discourage strong opinions, he said. “There’s an old joke about two network executives. One says, ‘What did you think of the [television] pilot?’ ” said McFarlane. “And the other one says, ‘I don’t know. I’m the only one that has seen it.’ ”
Of course, there is a rhyme and reason to all the semantic cloudiness.
First, as one high-ranking network executive said, it’s a pride thing. Who wants to draw attention to failure or even acknowledge that a show has run its course? It’s hard enough to develop shows and pick hits -- do we really need to rub it in by keeping score? Further, direct language can all too easily upset Hollywood egos and sour business dealings, especially in today’s hyper-competitive mega-channel environment. OK, this particular show didn’t work out, executives routinely reason, but maybe its creators have the next great idea for a hit show, so why risk alienating them?
“It’s extremely important to maintain good relationships in Hollywood. The use of qualifying language is a way to soften the blow,” said Laurie Hutzler, a visiting associate professor at UCLA and a former staff writer on NBC’s recently canceled “The Black Donnellys.” “Cancellation implies failure. More open-ended language implies the possibility of future success.”
Sometimes, those reed-thin hopes of rescue from the island of canceled TV shows actually materialize, as in the cases of ABC’s “According to Jim” and CBS’ post-apocalyptic drama “Jericho.” With “Jericho,” it wasn’t until mid-May that fans discovered their show was getting blown off the fall schedule. CBS President Nina Tassler briefly explained at the time that the show had “lost its engine” and wasn’t “performing.”
“It’s disrespectful when they don’t come right out and tell you the show has been canceled,” said Franky Alain, a 39-year-old graphic designer from Montreal who helped organize a massive campaign to protest the show’s cancellation.
“We have a relationship with the show, we invest our family time into the show, and then it’s gone with little or no explanation. I liken it to dating someone who says they’re going on vacation and then they never come back,” Alain said.
Because of the fan outpouring, CBS resurrected the show and ordered at least seven more original episodes, which will “return” -- from exactly where was never mentioned -- in midseason. But the overwhelming majority of shows aren’t so lucky as to be rescued from oblivion.
“I see them on the Island of Hiatus out there somewhere,” joked Brooks. “They’re out there, just waiting, waiting, waiting for the boat that never comes. You talk about lost.”